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Clay credits offseason work with Taylor, play-calling for solid production

For the time being, there's less talk about Charles Clay falling short of the lofty expectations that came with the fat contract he signed to join the Buffalo Bills last year.

Through five games, the tight end ranks third on the team with 17 receptions for 187 yards, an average of 11 yards per catch. Tyrod Taylor has been looking his way more often and the two are showing far better chemistry than they did in 2015.

When Clay draws those favorable one-on-one matchups -- which is practically every time he runs a route -- Taylor seeks to take advantage of them rather than going to one of his wide receivers ... or pulling the ball down and running.

This is hardly a coincidence.

For one thing, Taylor and Clay devoted part of February and March, before formal team practices, to working out together at a training center in Florida. For another, the play-calling style of new Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn encourages Taylor to make better use of Clay and the rest of his pass-catchers.

The workouts were a major step in the building of a much-needed professional bond between the quarterback and tight end.

"It makes it that much more comfortable running routes knowing what he's thinking, where I can expect the ball coming out of my break, when I can expect it," Clay said Friday, as the Bills prepared for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers. "It makes it a lot more comfortable just because we spent that time. I could sit and talk with him for awhile, whereas in practice, you're getting rep after rep after rep and it makes it difficult to sometimes.

"It was good to have that kind of one-on-one time to sit there and just try to talk through some stuff. So I feel like that's helped tremendously."

So, too, has the promotion of Anthony Lynn from assistant head coach/running backs to offensive coordinator after the Sept. 16 firing of Greg Roman.

Lynn's play-calling style is more matchup specific than Roman's approach. And that has done plenty to pull Taylor's eyes towards Clay.

"We get in a certain part of the field and (Lynn might say), 'OK, we want to take advantage of Clay right here,'" Clay said. "So he calls a play to take advantage of this matchup or we'll call a play to take advantage of (LeSean McCoy's) matchup or things like that."

In Clay's case, the matchups are almost always going to be to his advantage because he almost always faces a safety. On those rare occasions he doesn't, a linebacker draws the unenviable task of covering him.

Given that the Bills' most dangerous receiver, Sammy Watkins, is on the injured-reserve list with a chronic foot issue, Clay has emerged as the best and most reliable of Taylor's targets. McCoy, who ranks second on the Bills with 19 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, is next on the list, even though wide receiver Robert Woods leads the club with 20 receptions for 196 yards.

"I'd like to think that, a majority of the time, any kind of man-to-man situation, I feel like that's why they brought me here," Clay said. "Talking to Tyrod, he depends on me to get open in certain situations like that. That's something I kind of hang my hat on, doing everything I can to get open as fast as I can so he doesn't have to just sit back there. There's a lot of things going on back there, so as comfortable as I can make him, I try to."

Taylor feels that comfort.

"Definitely, his matchups cause problems for the other defenses, whether it's a safety or a linebacker, and he catches the ball very well, runs very good routes," the quarterback said. "So the more than we can use him, the more I can get the ball to him, the better we are as an offense."

The results aren't showing up on a grand scale. The Bills rank last in the NFL in passing offense.

Still, last year, after the Bills made him one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league to pry him out of Miami as a restricted free agent, Clay didn't have an overwhelming impact. In 13 games, he caught 51 passes for 528 yards and three touchdowns.

He's pretty much on the same statistical pace, although there is reason to believe his involvement will steadily increase, especially without Watkins in the lineup for most, if not all, of the rest of the season. After Watkins publicly demanded more targets early last season, Clay and the other pass-catchers saw less of the ball.

Now, Clay believes Taylor has a far greater awareness of his capabilities after studying video of all of his 13 games last season and seeing opportunities to throw to him on which Taylor didn't always capitalize. In many cases, Clay would be open in the middle of the field, where Taylor tended not to look often enough.

That hasn't been the case as much so far this season.

"When you go back and look at film over last year, there's always things that you look at, and I think that was kind of one of those things," Clay said. "And I mean, it was our first year in this offense together, so it might be times where he'd see a good cover safety on me and may think, 'OK, I'm going to work this receiver on this guy.' I wouldn't say not expecting me to get open, but he would like this matchup better than this one. And you go back on the film and you see I was open and it's like, 'OK, if we get in that situation again, I'll go to Clay this time.'

"And I kind of feel like that's how it is now is just after going back and watching film last year, and kind of working with him this offseason, I feel like he kind of has a better feel for how I run routes and I kind of have a better feel for what he's looking for as opposed to last year."

Clay isn't crowing about his performance, because that isn't his style and he recognizes that what he has done is far from spectacular. He also readily acknowledges that the Bills' run-first scheme won't allow for a whole lot of big receiving numbers for anyone on the team.

Clay's biggest concern is to continue to do as much as he can to help extend the team's three-game winning streak.

"There's always things you can get better at," he said. "But the biggest thing is just trying to take advantage of those opportunities I get and try to be there for my teammates when my number's called."

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